JP Gomez Wins Nationals in Back-to-Back Ultra4 Victories
JP Gomez took the checkered flag for back to back victories as Erik Miller took home the National Points Championship in a big weekend for Team Nitto at the Ultra4 Racing National Championship race. Returning to the Wild West Motorsports Park just outside Reno, Nevada, for the fifth straight year, spectators and racers alike were treated to one of the most exciting Ultra4 events in history. In a race with a marred start, the ending more than made up for the beginning and capped another incredible year of racing for 2018. At the season-end banquet on Saturday night, champions were crowned, stories were told, drinks were had and KOH plans were started as there really is no “off season” for Ultra4. KOH is only 100 days away!
The Wild West Motorsports Park in Sparks, Nevada, is an ultimate season ending race course that encompasses short course thrills, hill climbs, high speed sections and rocks, with an amazing spectator section that can see the entire course. The biggest danger each year is the whiplash from trying to see all the action at once. The entire year boiled down to this final event for all classes. National championships were still in doubt, KOH qualification was still available as some teams fought to avoid having to run the LCQ next year and the thrill of standing on top of the podium is always in the eye of everyone who puts on a fire suit and straps on a helmet.
(Writer’s note: Sometimes there is just too much goodness. For this article, I am focusing on the 4400 Unlimited class. The Underclassmen race recap and season ending awards report will follow in a separate article to highlight the hard work and results of the 4500, 4600, 4800 and 4900 classes.)
With the layout and driver turnout for Nationals, there was once again a qualifying heat format. Drivers burned their way around the short course and through the rock garden on Friday afternoon for placement in race heats on Saturday. Saturday consisted of three preliminary heats for the Unlimited drivers in which the top seven from each heat transferred to the Main, then a Main B, followed by an LCQ Shootout for two final drivers to make the Main. All in all, the drivers had three possible shots to make the main race, but the more tries it took, the further back in the pack they started. The balance between keeping the cars together and getting a high starting position added tension and drama to qualifying day.
You can watch all the qualifying events here. It’s a great way to spend the day when you're supposed to be working! For right now, I’ll recap some highlights so we can get to the Main race. First off, Team Nitto driver Cody Addington is a beast. We’ve all seen winning cars go to new drivers and never return to the same level of success. Not so for the Red Dragon. Cody upgraded machines and his driving is more powerful than ever. He laid down the fastest lap time on Friday and went on to lay down the fastest lap in the qualifying heats to win the KMC Hard Charger award and pole position in the main.
Ultra4 Racing is about never quitting and the trail riding roots have never left this sport. Levi Shirley took a bad tumble in qualifying, to the point of possibly having to end his day early due to damage on the car. The Ultra4 family of racers and pit crews wouldn’t let that happen. Members of four different teams pitched in with Levi and worked feverishly to get the car ready for the Main B, from which Levi raced it into the Main. When it looked like all was lost, miracles were worked and friendships were solidified. Kudos to everyone who pitched in to get Levi back on course. Karma is a powerful thing.
The main race consisted of 12 laps around the punishing course with a winner take all finish. The race cars started like God intended: two by two and side by side as they enter the Ark…or in this case, the rock garden in front of the grandstands. With Cody Addington on the pole and a host of horsepower behind him, everyone waited for the green flag to drop! Engines and the crowd roared as one and the race was on…for a few minutes, that is, until it was off. A pileup going up King Shock hill brought out the red flag and the Ultra4 team worked to line the teams up for a restart. After taking cars off of one another and getting everyone down the hill, the drivers were lined back up in starting order at the start line and ready to go again.
Once again, the crowd and engines erupted as Cody flew through the rock with two-time king Loren Healy right on his tail. Going into turn one, Cody and Loren got tangled up with Cody ending up rolling to the outside and Loren charging to the lead. Once again teams powered up King Shock hill, only to once again have cars pile up and cause another red flag. Safety always comes first, and with the dust and stopped cars, a second restart was required to ensure safety and a competitive environment. On restart number two, however, the cars were brought to the top of King Shock hill and not put back in original starting order. While this helped cars like Nick Nelson and Shannon Campbell, who moved up during the second restart, it really hurt drivers like Cody Addington, who saw his pole position advantage disappear within seconds of the race starting and was now buried deep in the pack.
Teams and spotters perked up as they heard over the radios the two-minute warning from race director J.T. Taylor. By this point, drivers had been in their cars for over 45 minutes and were dealing with the adrenaline rush and crash of two starts and two red flags. Mental as well as vehicle toughness was going to be required to win this race. As the green flag dropped yet again, Loren Healy set out to define what it meant to run away from the field. Powering through turn after turn and rock course after rock course, Loren soon lapped half the field by the end of lap six. JP Gomez was a distant second in a group with Darren Hinke, Nick Nelson, Shannon Campbell, Brian Caprara and Andrew McLaughlin.
Midway through lap nine, fans and spotters all began pointing to a tire that was rocketing down the side of the mountain and headed towards the infield. Tires without a car are certainly strange, but not unusual when doing such hard racing, but everyone soon noticed that the rim was the very distinctive red color of race leader Loren Healy! The debate is still out about whether it was bad luck versus bad karma for the Cody spinout, but either way Loren sheared off the lug nuts from his passenger rear and ended his day in disappointment after completely dominating the first eight laps of the race. This opened the door for JP Gomez and Nick Nelson to start lighting the course on fire and the battle for second had now become the battle for first.
Team Nitto driver Nick Nelson, in a matching Jimmy’s IFS car to Loren’s, began to move through the field with precision and intent. JP Gomez, in his UFO single seater IFS buggy, just kept laying down smooth lap after smooth lap. JP was coming off his first Ultra4 Racing victory the previous race in Ridgecrest and appeared to like the taste of winning. No heroics were necessary, simply a strong, fast car and a seasoned driver to make it through all 12 laps. As Loren had just proven, in order to finish first, you must first finish.
Coming into the last rock section, JP was exiting the downhill as Nick Nelson was entering it. JP powered his UFO through the final rock garden to take the checkered flag and his second win of the year! Not to be outdone, Team Nitto driver Nick Nelson decided to put on a show for the fans and flat out sent it through the rock garden in front of the grandstands. In fact, he sent it a little too hard and ending up flying end-over-end on the backside of the rocks and just short of the finish line. Fate, however, had kindly put the car back on all fours and Nick slammed it into reverse and finished the race going backwards! The stand erupted with cheers as Nick took home second place. Mike Bergman was further back in the pack and rounded out the podium in third place, putting a second UFO car on the podium. Paul Horschel finished fourth and Levi Shirley overcame all the challenges between qualifying and the Main to bring Loretta home in fifth place.
While the front of the field was duking it out, another battle was raging back in the field: a battle of strategy for the National Championship points victory. Eastern Series winner Erik Miller and Western Series winner Wayland Campbell were battling for position and final points. Tucked away in this two-man battle was fellow solid axle and Miller Motorsports Pro Chassis racer Josh Blyler, just laying down fast laps and staying under the radar. Wayland continued to push his car hard to move up enough spots to gain points on Erik, while Erik strategically laid down nice, safe laps with the goal to finish the race. With only two laps remaining, however, Wayland pulled into the pits and had to call it a day. Erik continued through to the finish and solidified his first National Championship. Team Nitto driver Josh Blyer was also able to finish all 12 laps and accrued more points than Wayland to take second, dropping Wayland to third, but giving Team Nitto all three top spots in the National points!
Season End Awards
Congratulations to two-time king, 2018 National Points Champion and Team Nitto driver Erik Miller for winning both the 4Wheel Parts Eastern Series Championship as well as the Nitto Nationals Points Championship. Team Nitto took the top four spots in the final points, with Erik being followed by Showdown in Shamokin winner Josh Blyler in second, 2017 champ Wayland Campbell in third, three-time King Shannon Campbell in fourth and Levi Shirley in fifth place. The top two cars in 2018 were both Miller Motorsports Pro Chassis, while the rest of the top five were Campbell Enterprise Chassis. Wayland Campbell won the Lasernut Western Series Championship
Congratulations to Jason Scherer for winning the inaugural Off-road Triple Crown! Jason won the 2018 King of the Hammers, followed by a fourth-place finish at the MINT 400, then came back and won again at the Big House in Crandon to secure the short course portion of the feat. It was an incredible season of racing across the most challenging types of off-road racing in the United States. Well done and well deserved, Jason.
Congratulations to Campbell Enterprises for winning the first year of the Manufacturer’s Cup, barely beating out Miller Motorsports with such strong finishes at the Nationals race. With UFO delivering two of the top three cars at this year’s Nationals, Loren and Nick and the Jimmy’s Army in Jimmy’s 4x4 chassis, the Campbells and team Miller all getting stronger as the year went on, 2019 promises to be a very exciting year for competition and innovation in the sport and the industry.
The Ultra4 season has come and gone without a driver winning both the King of the Hammers and the National Points Championship in the 4400 class. Even after 10 years, the brutality of the series has kept this achievement from happening. Maybe 2019 will be the year. That being said, start making your plans now for the 2019 King of the Hammers. Race week has changed up a little bit with the EMC happening on Wednesday, a new invitational desert truck race happening on Thursday, and the main event, the King of the Hammers, happening on Friday, February 8, 2019. It’s an experience you don’t want to miss. Stay connected with Driving Line as we get you ready for the new season, get your fix and re-live previous races here and I’ll see you on the Lakebed in 2019! It’s an honor and privilege to be able to report out on Ultra4 Racing. Thank you for another great year.